As his Dubai training camp draws to a close ahead of his much-anticipated bout at UFC 280 down the road in Abu Dhabi, Belal Muhammad appears in the perfect spot both physically and mentally.
“I’m basically a local now,” says the American, a practising Muslim, having spent five weeks in the UAE embedded with Khabib Nurmagomedov, Islam Makhachev and team as he prepares to take on Sean Brady at Etihad Arena on Saturday night. “It’s been amazing, so cool to be down here.
“Fight-wise, I’m training with the best team in the world. But also, for my mental, for my soul, it’s helped me a lot too. Because living in the culture, hearing the call to prayer after practices, praying with your brothers, where the whole team is praying at the same time.
“You see somebody randomly walking, they’re telling you ‘As-salamu alaykum’ – just those little things are different than in America, where a lot of people are doing their own thing, heads in their phone, not paying attention to anything.
“And when it’s your time to pray, you’d have to go find a corner to pray by yourself and you have people looking at you like you’re weird: ‘What is the guy doing in public?’
“So it’s cool here, that at the same time everybody’s doing the exact same thing.”
It’s clear that connection to his roots matters to Muhammad. A son of Palestinian parents, the Chicago-born athlete has always been a vocal and vociferous supporter of their homeland.
His grandmother only recently left to join the family in the US after her personal circumstances changed; his brothers lived there years ago also.
Muhammad’s love for Palestine is evident whenever he competes. Typically, he sports the country’s flag before and after fighting in the UFC, a pursuit that grows more prominent as Muhammad has built an eight-bout unbeaten streak in the world’s lead mixed martial arts promotion.
“To fight for a country where there’s not really a lot of athletes that come from there, and to see what they’re going through all the time, to have a platform where I can speak up for them, where I can raise my flag for them…
“And to know that I get these messages from people there all the time, sending me, ‘Oh my god, thank you so much for showing the world that we do exist, we still belong here’, it just breaks your heart.
“But it also lets you know you’re fighting for something bigger; it’s not just about wins or losses. My win could raise a smile on a kid’s face who just lost his home, a kid that just saw his parents die.
“It lets me know that they’re the ones really fighting, fighting for life every single day. And this fight game is nothing compared to it. It’s just a little, small bubble.
“So, any chance I get to speak about it, or raise my colours, or donate to them, I’m going to do it. Because, if I don’t, who will?”
Competing in the region brings that home even more. Muhammad, 21-3 in professional MMA, has fought once before in Abu Dhabi, in September 2019, when he defeated Takashi Sato via third-round submission.
He has a Performance of the Night bonus to show for it. And the Facebook Memories that routinely remind of one of his greatest nights inside the octagon.
Muhammad hopes Saturday will supply the same sentiment.
“I’m just hoping the crowd is full of flags, the people are out there cheering,” Muhammad says. “And when I feel that energy it’s probably going to make me tear up, because of the love and the things I fight for, for the people, for something bigger than just a cheque.
“[On Saturday] when I fight and I win, Inshallah, I’m going to be fighting for the title. It’s going to be something where a million people around the world didn’t think was possible.
Muhammad and Makhachev visit children's hospital in Dubai
“They look at me like, ‘This guy doesn’t have the attributes of somebody that’s a crazy athlete, not six-foot-six, not this amazing power or anything like that.
“But I have the heart, the will and the grind that a lot of these guys don’t have.”
Muhammad expects to display those attributes at Etihad Arena. The UFC’s No 5-ranked welterweight contender, he has been paired against the fast-rising, and unbeaten, Brady. Ranked three spots below, Brady is 15-0 as a pro, and 5-0 in the UFC.
“He’s another guy they think will beat me,” Muhammad says. “I’m kinda the underdog again. But I’ve gone through the wringer; I’ve been through the ups and downs in this game already.
“I’ve fought some of the best guys in the world, and the level of guys that I’ve fought compared to the level of guys he’s fought, it’s not even close.
“I’m going to have to go out there and show them once again that I’m not going to lose. I’m going to go out there and put a performance that is going to give me that title fight.
“Make the world say, ‘Yo, now it’s time to give him it. This guy’s on a nine-fight winning streak. And he’s beating this guy, this guy, this guy, that they all thought would dominate him, and he dominated them all’.
“I’m going to leave it with no doubt.”
Muhammad, 34, understands that title shot depends on whether former champion Kamaru Usman opts, as is anticipated, to go straight into a rematch with belt-holder Leon Edwards. Edwards defeated Usman with a stunning, fifth-round head-kick in Utah in August.
Muhammad warns of the dangers of rushing back into action following such an emphatic knockout, and predicts that, should Usman take an extended period away, then he is primed to jump in to face Edwards.
Like Usman, Muhammad targets a rematch with the current champion. The two fought in March last year but, during the second round, Edwards’ outstretched finger jutted Muhammad’s eye, and the fight was declared a no contest.
“I want that back a lot,” Muhmmad says. “Especially the way it happened: I took the fight short notice, he’s the one who committed the fouls, and then acted like he was going to win anyway, when he won only one round.
“If you look at the fight with Kamaru, he lost four rounds and then won the last 30 seconds. So, after seeing how he won, there’s no more excuses.
“This fight makes the most sense. I’m the guy with the longest streak in the division right now, and there’s a history between us. I get this win [on Saturday], I don’t think there’s any other fight for me.”
Clear-headed, thanks to time in Dubai and around Team Khabib – “they welcomed me unbelievably; they’re like brothers, family” - and ultra-confident, roll on UFC 280.
“Saturday night I’m going to put on a show for all my fans, all my people,” Muhammad says. “Just make sure you’re in the crowd cheering for me. The energy is going to be amazing.
“I want to have one of those performances where I can jump into the crowd afterward. It’s going to be so cool to see and to hear, to feel that energy. I love it.”